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September 22, 2016
  Watson v. Rozum - Third Circuit
Headline: Court Finds Prisoner's Retaliation Claim Can Survive if Evidence of Prisoner Misconduct is not Clear and Overt

Area of Law: Retaliation - Deprivation of Rights

Issue(s) Presented: Under what circumstances can a prisoner's claim for retaliation survive attempts to show that the prisoner would have been disciplined even if he had not complained about his treatment?

Brief Summary: Prisoner Joseph Watson filed a claim against prison officials for illegal retaliation. He claimed that prison officials wrote him up for misconduct for having contraband in his cell (a radio with a taped-on antenna) only because he filed a grievance claiming a guard had broken off the antenna to his radio (which had only been loose before) during a routine cell search. The prison moved for summary judgment on his claim under the "other decision" doctrine, which holds that prison officials cannot be charge with retaliation if they can demonstrate that the prisoner would have been punished for his actions even if he had not engaged in protected activity, in this case even if he had not filed a grievance about the radio. While the District Court granted the prison's motion, the Third Circuit reversed, finding that summary judgment was only appropriate if the rules violation by the prisoner was "clear and overt." That was not true here. The Court noted that the prisoner had kept the same radio in his cell for over a year without any problems, that other inmates had broken radios and had not had misconduct charges brought against them, and that the decision to file a misconduct charge against Watson appears to have been made only after Watson said he was going to file a grievance.

Extended Summary: Joseph Watson is an inmate at the state prison in Somerset, Pennsylvania. Watson filed a claim against prison officials for retaliating against him for exercising his First Amendment rights. Watson's claim arose from the alleged mishandling and confiscation of his radio during a routine cell search. Watson alleged that while inspecting his radio, Officer Kline pulled the antenna so hard that it broke off of the radio. Officer Kline claimed the antenna was already broken, but secured with tape. Watson claimed it was merely loose. After Kline failed to take responsibility for breaking the antenna, Watson requested a grievance form from Captain Simosko, who refused to provide one. Later that day, Watson was summoned to a meeting with Officer Coutts about the broken radio, at which meeting Officer Coutts supposedly admonished Watson for giving Kline and Simosko a "hard time" by asking for a grievance form and by requesting that the radio be fixed. Coutts allegedly told Watson that he should have simply dropped the matter, and because he didn't, Coutts would be filing a misconduct charge against Watson. Watson was eventually able to file his grievance after he secured the proper form from another prisoner, but before he could do that, he was officially charged with a Class I misconduct for having a broken radio in his cell. (Broken radios are considered contraband under prison regulations.) The misconduct form was issued about 6 hours after the initial search of Watson's cell.

Watson filed his retaliation lawsuit against several individuals, including Officers Coutts. The District Court granted summary judgment on this claim, ruling that the officials would have issued the misconduct against Watson even if he hadn't filed a grievance (the "same decision" defense), because the radio was contraband, and keeping contraband in one's cell is a punishable offense. The same decision defense requires the prison officials to establish that "they would have made the same decision absent the protected conduct for reasons reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest."

The Court of Appeals found that summary judgment in favor of Officer Coutts was not appropriate, because the record supported conflicting inferences regarding Coutts' motive in issuing Watson's misconduct. Although an inference of improver motive can be rebutted if the evidence of a violation of prison regulations is "clear and overt," in this case the Court found this not to be true. The Court noted evidence in the record that Watson's radio had been broken for at least a year, as well as evidence that there were other inmates who had broken radios that had not been confiscated and for which they had not been issued misconduct citations. The evidence also showed that Officer Kline did not issue a misconduct citation to Watson at the time he confiscated the radio, but rather that the misconduct was issued only after Watson announced he was going to file a grievance.

Accordingly, the Third Circuit found that granting summary judgment for the claim against Officer Coutts was not appropriate. The decision of the lower court was affirmed in all respects except with respect to the summary judgment for Officer Coutts, which judgment was reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

Judge Ambro filed a concurring opinion in which he expressed a concern about what to do in future situations where, unlike in the instant case, prison officials can prove that punishment would normally be imposed for the conduct at issue but there is still a strong indication that the punishment was actually imposed in retaliation for exercising protected activities. He suggested a hypothetical in which a prison official admits that the prisoner would never have been charged with misconduct had he not filed a complaint against prison officials.

Judge Hardiman filed a dissenting opinion.

The full opinion can be found at

Panel: McKee, Ambro, and Hardiman

Argument Date: October 8, 2015

Date of Issued Opinion: August 23, 2016

Docket Number: 13-3510

Decided: Affirmed in part, Reversed in part

Case Alert Author: Jasmine M.Williams

Counsel: Kathleen G. Kane Attorney General of Pennsylvania Kemal A. Mericli, Counsel for Appellees; Benjamin R. Barnett, Ellen L. Mossman, Counsel for Appellant

Author of Opinion: Chief Judge McKee

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Prof. Mark Anderson

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 09/22/2016 10:47 AM     3rd Circuit  

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